Lychee Is an Underrated — but Seriously Sweet — Fruit

By: Stephanie Vermillion  | 

Lychees have a thin, bumpy red skin that protects the juicy fruit inside. Jenny Dettrick/Getty Images

With a sweet flavor and an array of health benefits, lychee (pronounced lai-chee) is a seriously underrated fruit. Lychee, also known as Chinese cherry, is a golf-ball-sized edible fruit native to Southeast Asia. It looks like an oversized raspberry, tastes like a subtle mix of grapes and pears, and promises a surprising amount of health benefits — it's been doing so for millennia.

Lychee's roots date back to at least 1059 B.C.E, with praise and pictures of the fruit in early Chinese literature. In fact, numerous lychee varieties are named after prominent Chinese families. The fruit is native to low-elevation stretches of southern China; cultivation expanded into Southeast Asia and later Burma (now Myanmar) and India. These days, farmers grow lychee in places like southern California, Florida and Hawaii, making the subtropical fruit more widely available.

But just because it is available doesn't mean people regularly buy it. Ruixi Hu, founder of Lost Plate Food Tours, which runs tours in Asia and the U.S., says food-tour guests have rarely tried it. "People have heard of lychee but haven't seen it before or don't know what it looks like," she says in an email. "People have pointed at it and asked me what it was, and when I tell them it's lychee they looked surprised. So I think people are familiar with the flavor or the word, but haven't actually seen the fruit."

You know lychees are ripe when when the skin separates easily from the flesh.
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What Exactly Is Lychee?

Lychees are tropical fruits that grow on soapberry evergreen trees near the equator. Hu says they're particularly popular in Southeast Asia, in places like Thailand or Cambodia, as well as southern China. They grow in bunches like mulberries, although with each fruit measuring around 1 to 1.5-inches (2.5 to 3.8 centimeters) in diameter, lychees are much larger than thumb-sized mulberries.

The fruit's thin, bumpy red skin protects a juicy, flavor-packed flesh interior. This flesh has the consistency of a grape, and the eating experience of a cherry: Bite in, enjoy the flavor and spit out the pit before swallowing. Unlike cherries and grapes, lychees need to be peeled. You can tell the lychee's ripe when its soft skin separates easily from the flesh. The Produce for Better Health Foundation recommends choosing lychees with red shells, and notes brown patches correlate with sweeter fruit.

While the fruit is delicious, take caution: It can be dangerous in the wrong conditions. In 2019, dozens of children in the northern Indian state of Bihar died due to a brain disease correlated with lychee toxins. According to reporting from CNN, lychee toxins can lead to acute encephalitis syndrome, which causes inflammation of the brain.

The Bihar state health department said low blood sugar was to blame for these deaths, but Sanjay Kumar, a senior state health official, told CNN the affected children "are from poor families, and they do not have sugar reserves, and they are also malnourished. The liver stores glycogen. When the sugar level goes down, the liver releases extra sugar to balance it out, but if there is no extra sugar and there are only toxins, then they get released," he said.


How to Eat Lychee

The easiest, and perhaps best, way to eat lychees is au naturale. "We just eat them by themselves," Hu says. "They're really juicy, sweet and have a unique flavor that is unlike any other fruit. To me, they just tastes fresh." To sustain this freshness, don't peel lychees until right before they're served.

But raw isn't the only way to enjoy these flavor-filled fruits. You can make lychee jam, juice and sauce; with an aromatic flavor, the fruit adds a great sweet-sauce complement to meat and fish dishes. Lychee also lends itself to drinks like milkshakes, martinis and smoothies. You can buy them at most major grocery stores or online, where they're available either fresh, canned or dried, or in all three forms.

Lychees grow on soapberry evergreen trees in tropical regions near the equator. Some of the trees have lived to be more than 1,000 years old.
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Vitamins and Minerals Galore

One cup of fresh lychees has just over 120 calories, with more than 100 percent of the recommended daily vitamin C — a perk that keeps skin looking healthy while restoring the body's immunity. Lychees are also filled with potassium, which helps lower high blood pressure. One of the best ways to get more vitamins and minerals with your lychee snack is to substitute fresh lychees for dried, which deliver roughly double the quantity of minerals like potassium.

There is one thing to watch out for with lychees, though: sugar. One cup of fresh or raw lychees has 28 grams of natural sugar, and dried lychees have even more: 63 grams of sugar per half-cup. That's why nutritionists recommend those with diabetes or on restricted-calorie diets avoid dried lychees, and eat the raw fruit in moderation.